If you're used car shopping on a budget, don't risk buying something that's going to fall apart its first time on the freeway. There are solid options for $5,000 or less that will be dependable and economical for miles to come.
Good used cars for under $5,000 aren’t mythical unicorns – they really do exist. The only catch is that most of them aren’t particularly special. You have to give up on style and speed if you want dependable and economical. Sure, that 1978 Trans Am on Craigslist for $3,000 is cool – if you’re willing to accept the city bus as your primary mode of transportation.
Honda Civic (2000 - 2005)
It should come as no surprise that the venerable Honda Civic makes this list. Civics can withstand the abuse of first time drivers, which is why you often see them parked on high school and college campuses. For model years 2000 - 2005, you’ll find a range of four cylinder engines under the hood; from a 1.6L to a 2.0L. Power is sent to to the front wheels via a manual or automatic transmission. The Civic is simple mechanically and requires very little maintenance. The only thing to pay attention to is the timing belt: if it’s not changed according to the maintenance schedule, it can break and damage the engine. Not all Civics employ a timing belt however; any Civic with a VTEC engine uses a timing chain, which does not require regular service. The Civic essentially has no common problems and is known to last over 300,000 miles if properly cared for.
Toyota Corolla (2000 - 2006)
The Toyota Corolla may look like a jellybean, but it’s got it where it counts. It’s little four cylinder engine keeps going like the Energizer Bunny. In fact, you’re likely to get bored of the Corolla before it ever starts being mechanically problematic. The 2000 - 2006 Corolla featured a stout and dependable 1.8L four-cylinder engine. Due to the growing trend of people who like to text/eat/knit while driving, most Corollas were offered with an automatic transmission. However, if you look hard enough, you may find a manual. Like the Civic, the Corolla requires very little maintenance. Model year 2000 and newer Corollas don’t even have a timing belt to replace; they use a service-free timing chain.
Toyota RAV4 (2000 - 2005)
This is kind of a cheat, since the Toyota RAV4 is basically a Corolla underneath. But, for those looking for an affordable, dependable SUV, nothing beats the RAV4. The 2000 - 2005 RAV4 was offered with either a 2.0L or 2.4L four-cylinder engine, as well as the choice of either an automatic or manual transmission. Guys driving gas-guzzling mega-SUVs may laugh at the bug-eyed RAV4, but it’s a great little rig. Plus, unlike its fraternal twin, the Corolla, the RAV4 can be had with all-wheel drive. The RAV4 will never be mistaken for a rock crawler, but the all-wheel drive does come in handy in snow and foul weather.
Honda CR-V (2002 - 2006)
Once again, kind of a cheat since the Honda CR-V is based on the Civic platform. But the CR-V is just so great, we can’t help but to mention it. Powered by a 2.4L four-cylinder engine, the CR-V is both economical and dependable. Like the RAV4, it offers mini-SUV goodness such as a raised ride height and optional all-wheel drive. Most 2002 - 2005 CR-Vs came equipped with automatic transmissions, but you will find some manuals floating around on the market. Maintenance is a breeze as 2002 through 2006 models are equipped with a timing chain and not a belt.
Toyota Tacoma Two-Wheel Drive (1998 - 2004)
You’d be hard pressed to find a good four-wheel drive Toyota Tacoma for under $5000, but a two-by-four is doable. The 1998 - 2004 Taco’ was powered by either a 2.4L four-cylinder, 2.7L four-cylinder or 3.0L six-cylinder. Power is sent to the rear wheels by means of either an automatic or manual transmission. Only the six-cylinder has a timing belt that requires scheduled replacement; the four-cylinder engines use timing chains. The Tacoma is really the only choice when it comes to buying a used small pickup truck.
By now, you’ve probably noticed a trend: if you want dependable and economical, go Honda or Toyota. These two brands offer quality and longevity that no other manufacturer can provide. So, if you’re looking for a commuter on the cheap, walk right past that high-mileage BMW 3-Series to a nice Civic or Corolla. You – and your wallet – will thank us later.
Mia Bevacqua works at YourMechanic.com. Have your own question about service terms or anything else auto related? You can ask one of our highly trained technicians and get an answer quickly, usually within 24 hours.